Moving to California: What it’s Like to Live in the Golden State

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Craving a new locale featuring plenty of sunshine, easy access to the ocean and delicious food? Moving to California might be for you. California is among the biggest states in the nation, both in terms of land size and population, so there is a huge range of great places to live. However, California is also one of the most expensive places to move to in America, so be prepared to spend more of your income on necessities like housing and transportation than you may have in your previous home.


What Is It Like to Live in California?

Living in California graphic

Talk to a Californian about what it's like to live there, and they'll likely call out three things first: the weather, the food, and the relaxed, easy-going culture. California's location and topography mean that much of the state, especially along the coast, experience remarkably consistent warm weather year-round. (For example, Los Angeles has an average of 263 sunny days per year.) And there are plenty of opportunities to make use of that great weather. California is home to 28 national parks, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Joshua Tree. And there are many places statewide for outdoor activities, including beaches, hiking trails and more.

Great food is also readily available. California's Central Valley is a major agricultural center, so fresh produce is inexpensive and very high-quality. What's more, California has a diverse array of cuisines available to its residents, due in part to its strong immigrant communities.

Another result of its historical role as an immigrant landing ground: California's population is remarkably diverse. In fact, it's the second-most ethnically diverse state in the U.S. and has the highest number of immigrants, both in absolute terms and percentage of its overall population. If you live in California, you're likely to live and work with people from all backgrounds and walks of life.

The Climate of California

California is known for having a warm, sunny climate, and that's generally accurate. However, the state has an incredibly varied geography that results in a wide variety of different climates. It's known for having "microclimates," where temperatures can range dramatically from one place to the next, despite a short distance separating the two. For example, on a summer day, it might be 60 degrees in Palo Alto but 80 degrees in San Jose, less than 20 miles away.

In general, it can be useful to think of California as having five climate regions:

  • South Coast
  • North Coast
  • Central Valley
  • California Desert
  • Sierra Nevada and northern forests
map of California's climate regions

The coastal areas of California have the most consistent weather and are the most densely populated, with 68% of California residents living in counties along the ocean. Generally speaking, the South Coast is warmer, sunnier and drier than the North Coast. For example, the average summer high in Los Angeles is in the mid-80s, and the city gets about 23 rainy days per year. Meanwhile, a typical summer high in San Francisco is in the mid-60s, and the city gets about 45 days of rain annually.

The Central Valley, California's agricultural center, has more pronounced seasons than the coast. Its hot summers regularly hit the high 90s and low 100s, while winter highs hover around the mid 50s. Of the people who don't live in California's coastal regions, the remainder mostly live here, in cities like Sacramento and Fresno.

The mountains and northern forests of California, including the Sierra Nevada and Sierra Madre, are much cooler and see far more precipitation (including snow) than the rest of the state. At higher elevations, snow sometimes persists late into the year, making it sometimes possible to go skiing in July or later. There are small towns throughout the mountain ranges, but they're far less densely populated than the coasts.

The California deserts, bordering Nevada, are hot and dry year-round. Death Valley in particular is famous for being one of the hottest places in the world, having set the record for hottest recorded temperature in history. The deserts are inhospitable to humans and sparsely populated.

Wildfires

A consequence of California's sunny weather is that the state gets less rain than most other states. A recent yearslong drought has led to wildfires being a consistent problem for the state. Since 2000, there have been about 8,000 wildfires each year, with 655,000 acres of land consumed by flames.

Cost of Living in California

By many metrics, the cost of living in California is consistently among the highest in the nation, especially in desirable areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's very difficult to find a cheap place to live here. The median home value is $539,800, which is the second-highest countrywide—only Hawaii beats it. This is somewhat balanced by California's high wages, as the median household income is $67,739. But this still means the home cost ratio is 800%—far higher than Texas (329%), New York state (448%) or the national average (377%).

Unfortunately, renters don't fare much better. The median rent for a new apartment in the entire state of California is $2,507. That's even more expensive than New York City, where the median rent is an already-high $2,322—not to mention almost double the national median of $1,442. California's median rent works out to be 44.4% of the median salary, meaning a typical Californian may be spending nearly half their income just to pay for housing.

Working in California

California has a nearly endless variety of job opportunities for new residents. California has a gross state product of $2.7 trillion. If it were a country, its GDP would be ranked fifth worldwide, putting it ahead of Great Britain. California also boasts a diverse set of industries that contribute to its strong economy, meaning there are many different types of jobs for residents.

Significant industries statewide include trade, agriculture and tourism. In Southern California, including Los Angeles, notable industries include entertainment, like movie, television and music production. The San Francisco Bay Area is known for being host to technology giants like Apple, Google and Facebook, not to mention thousands of smaller companies and startups.

The median household income is among the highest in the country, exceeding both Texas ($56,565) and New York state ($62,909), though high wages are offset by a high overall cost of living.

Getting Around in California

In the vast majority of California, the dominant way to get around is by car. That means that the cost of getting around primarily involves gas, insurance, and the cost of buying or leasing a car. Gas prices are very high in California. Over the last six months, gas prices in the state of California were 30% higher than the national average. This places it ahead of every other state in the country for gasoline costs except Hawaii.

Car insurance rates in California are also on the high side—in a nationwide study, we found that California placed 44th out of 50 states when it came to affordable car insurance. However, car insurance shoppers can frequently find a better deal by shopping around from multiple insurance companies. For example, residents in Folsom, California, who purchase GEICO insurance can save nearly 40% from the average annual rate, which is around $1,660.

Car Insurance Requirements in California

California does not have particularly stringent minimums for auto insurance coverage. The only requirements are liability coverage for bodily injury and property damage. You're not required to get uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage or personal injury protection. However, you should consider your own insurance needs and what level of risk you're comfortable with when buying auto insurance, not just the minimum amount necessary by law.

California Auto Insurance Coverage Minimums

California Required Car Insurance CoverageCA Required Minimum Limits
Bodily injury (BI) liability insurance$15,000 per person / $30,000 per accident
Property damage (PD) liability insurance$5,000 per accident

Where Should I Live in California?

Where Should I Live in California?

California has an endless array of different places to live, each with its own style, cost of living and job opportunities. Below, take a look at a few popular destinations along with their cost of living and some pros and cons to keep in mind.

Moving to Los Angeles

Los Angeles is California's largest city and centerpoint of sunny SoCal culture. The city itself is large, but the entire county is almost as big as the state of Connecticut. There are hundreds of different neighborhoods and places to live, from beachy Santa Monica to upscale Beverly Hills. But that size means it can take a long time to get anywhere, and Los Angeles' traffic is notoriously headache-inducing. Depending on where you live, you might run into celebrities. But with a population of nearly 4 million, you'll have to keep your eyes peeled.

  • Key industries: Entertainment (music, movies, television)
  • Median rent for one-bedroom apartment: $2,366
  • Best perks: Beaches, hiking, Disneyland
  • Biggest drawbacks: Urban sprawl, traffic

Moving to San Francisco

San Francisco was long considered second fiddle to Los Angeles, but the tech boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have put San Francisco on equal footing with Los Angeles in terms of cultural cachet—and more expensive when it comes to the cost of living. It has famously variable weather that doesn't correspond to typical seasons. The warmest months are September and October, and temperatures can fluctuate wildly based on location and time of day. But there is always something exciting happening, and you'll be treated to beautiful row houses, world-class restaurants and parks right in the city. The city's small size and high density mean that it's far easier to go car-free here than anywhere else in the state.

  • Key industries: Tech companies and startups, finance
  • Median rent for one-bedroom apartment: $3,677
  • Best perks: Great restaurants, no car needed
  • Biggest drawbacks: Very high housing costs

Moving to the Bay Area (Outside San Francisco)

Given San Francisco's tiny geographic size, it's no surprise that San Francisco's culture has spread beyond the city itself into the surrounding Bay Area. The Bay Area is home to Silicon Valley and tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google. Some of the best universities in the country are also located here, including Stanford University and University of California-Berkeley. North of San Francisco are Marin, Napa, Sonoma and the Redwood National Park.

In some ways, the Bay Area feels more like the rest of California than it does like San Francisco itself. The weather is warmer, things are more spread out and you'll likely need a car to live there. But rents in cities close to San Francisco, like Berkeley and Oakland, are still more expensive than a typical California apartment, and the same cultural ethos prevails. The largest city in the Bay Area, San Jose, is actually bigger than San Francisco itself. So SF is not your only option for a big city in the region.

  • Key industries: Tech companies and startups, finance (similar to San Francisco)
  • Median rent for one-bedroom apartment : $2,397 (in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area)
  • Best perks: Plenty of green space
  • Biggest drawbacks: Low density means you have to drive everywhere

Moving to San Diego

San Diego is California's ultimate beach town. It's the second-biggest city in the state, and it's located in California's southwestern corner, just over the border from Tijuana, Mexico. Despite its large population, it has much more of a small-town feel than Los Angeles. Life in San Diego is generally very relaxed, with abundant opportunities to go to the beach year-round. The average high in July is 75°F, while in January it's just 10 degrees cooler, with an average high of 65°F. However, the city's unbeatable weather means that rents are very high.

  • Key industries: Defense/military, trade, tourism, biotechnology
  • Median rent for one-bedroom apartment: $1,851
  • Best perks: Beaches, San Diego Zoo
  • Biggest drawbacks: Low wages compared to housing costs

Moving to Sacramento

Sacramento is the capital of California, and with a population of around 495,000, it's the state's sixth-largest city. It's located about two hours inland by car from San Francisco, so you're missing out on the easy oceanfront access of other locales on the list, but it's a far more affordable place to live. An average rental in Sacramento is a relative bargain at $1,700 per month. There are plenty of lakes and rivers to explore in the area, so you don't need to travel far to get on the water. Plus, Sacramento puts you closer to skiing and national parks like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.

Sacramento doesn't receive as much of a moderating effect from the ocean as coastal California, so its weather gets much hotter in summer, with summertime highs usually reaching the low 90s. Winters are cooler, but not cold: Winter lows are typically in the low 50s.

  • Key industries: State government, trade, agriculture, health care
  • Median rent for one-bedroom apartment: $1,400
  • Best perks: Easy access to national parks, affordability
  • Biggest downsides: Hot summer weather

How to Move to California

Living in California graphic

If you've committed yourself to moving to California, the first thing to keep in mind is how expensive it is to do so. Most places in California are very pricey to live in, so the bigger a financial cushion you can put together, the better off you'll be. If you're able to secure a job offer before you move, even better, especially if your company can cover moving expenses.

Renting an Apartment in California

California's high rents and low vacancy rates make it very challenging to rent an apartment in most places in the state. It's especially challenging in desirable locales like the Mission in San Francisco or Culver City in Los Angeles. The first step is to pick an approximate area to live and an approximate price range. A good rule of thumb is to divide your annual salary by 40, and set that for the amount you should spend. It will be about one-third of your salary. For example, if you make $40,000 per year, you should aim to spend around $1,000 per month on rent.

The ideal strategy to locate an apartment in California is to combine looking online and hunting in person in your neighborhood of choice. You can survey a much wider area by using online tools like Craigslist, Streeteasy and Zillow; but searching on foot or by car allows you to get a better feel for what a neighborhood is actually like. Plus, you might find a great deal for a place not listed on the web.

If you do end up working with an apartment broker or agent, the landlord will usually pay their commission. You don't need to worry about any additional costs beyond an application fee, which may run in the $30 to $50 range.

Housing Considerations in California

There are some benefits and points to consider when choosing where you'd like to live in California, beyond just the feel of a neighborhood. Here are some common ones, so you can decide which are must-haves and which you can live without.

  • Building size and style: There are lots of different options for housing in California, from stand-alone houses to multiunit complexes. Tall apartment buildings are relatively less common in California, but there are apartment complexes that can include amenities like a shared pool and exercise center.
  • Commute time: California traffic is consistently bad. If you can, try to pick a place that will make your commute as easy as possible, so you can spend less time in your car and more time enjoying living in California.
  • Parking: Some apartments include parking as part of your rent, while others may charge extra for a spot. And some places don't provide parking at all. Keep the possible extra cost of a parking spot in mind when setting your budget.
  • Air conditioning: Depending on the region you live in and your own tolerance for heat, you may or may not need air conditioning at all. Consider whether you'd be comfortable with fans or a window unit, or if you need central AC.

What to Bring When Looking for Apartments

Once you're ready to start hunting for your apartment, prepare your paperwork and bring it with you to each showing. If you love an apartment, putting in your application immediately may boost your chances at securing the lease.

You should bring:

  • Checkbook to pay the deposit
  • Photo ID
  • Proof of employment or pay stubs
  • References
  • Credit score

An individual application may not not require all of these items, but competition for apartments is fierce. If you're missing a necessary document and another applicant submits their application first, you might lose out. So it's better to come prepared.

Renters Insurance

Once you move in to your new California apartment, make sure to purchase a renters insurance policy. The cheapest renters insurance policies only cost a few dollars a month, and you'll be protected if your belongings are damaged or stolen. Some landlords even require you to buy renters insurance in order to move in. Coverage will cost you around $10 to $20 a month. See our full breakdown of renters insurance in California.

Registering Your Car in California

If you're bringing your car when you move to California, you'll have to register it with the California DMV within 20 days of moving to the state. Before doing so, you'll need proof of insurance, your previous title and registration, and an emissions certification (unless your car is under 4 years old, or a hybrid/electric vehicle).

When you go to register your car, a DMV employee will perform an inspection and verify your VIN. Once you've completed all the necessary forms and paid the appropriate fees, you'll be issued California license plates and registration.

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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.